(Today's guest blog is by my friend, Cathy Olson. She decided to share this partially based on the story of my father, whose memorial service we held today. My father came to the U.S. in 1947 via ship from England. As incredible an adventure as he had, I'm quite sure it was less treacherous that that of Cathy's great-grandfather- Melinda)
My grandfather was a master story teller. From the time my brother and I were babies he would regale us with stories of Robin Hood and his merry men. But of all the tales, the one that stood tallest was about how our family, the Applefelds, came to live in Baltimore.
Here’s how it went: His father, my great-grandfather Louis, in the late 1800s set off from Eastern Europe to find opportunity in the new world. He boarded a stifling ship with plans to settle in New York, then send for my great-grandmother and their eight children. Upon arrival at Ellis Island, he was given a new surname because the one he left home with couldn’t be translated into English. Somewhere in his papers was mention of apple farming; Applefeld it was.
But then comes the crazy part. As my grandfather tells it, my great-grandfather, excitement pulsing through his veins, took his first steps on U.S. soil and was promptly whacked on the head by a club, knocked out, and awoke some hours later to find himself on a boat headed south. In various incarnations of the story the weapon of choice was usually a club, sometimes a barrel, occasionally just “a blunt object.” Once in a while he even had a potato sack tied over his head. But the verb was always whacked, said with gusto and a distinct twinkle in my grandfather’s eye.
On the boat, my great-grandfather was forced into hard labor loading goods, and given very little food and water. When his services were no longer needed, the “pirates” unapologetically dumped him off at Baltimore harbor. As a child, the story was immediately believable. As I grew older, a little less so. History class had borne out some of the details, but did these pirates really exist? And what was with all the whacking? We grandkids began questioning the details but my grandfather stuck steadfastly to the story until his death.
A few years ago my own children participated in a wonderful Hebrew school project. They were asked to present the story of a relative who’d immigrated to the U.S. Of course, because my dad and I continued the tradition of sharing the pirate story with them, it was a no-brainer. The coolest thing about the project was that their teacher wasn’t looking for historical accuracy but rather the rich anecdotes they’d learned about their ancestors from living family members. A perfect fit.
Then just last month I had the incredible opportunity to tour the National Archives with the one of the head U.S. archivists. Literally walking through our country’s history, I was reminded of my great-grandfather’s story. With the slightest trepidation of bubble-bursting, I shared it. His response was a surprise and a delight. The practice of pirates kidnapping immigrants straight off the boat was documented precisely during the window of late 1880s-90s when my great-grandfather had made his journey. The story was most certainly true, he said, though he could neither confirm nor deny the potato sack.
I immediately wished my grandfather were alive to share this with. Confirmation. From the National Archives, no less. Then I realized he never needed such affirmation. With that same twinkle in his eye, he would simply say, “I told you so.”
Today’s donation goes to the Foundation for the National Archives. Our glorious melting pot of a country is bubbling with fascinating family histories. If you haven’t already done so, take some time to talk with your older relatives about yours. Embellished or not, they are precious and well worth passing down.
-Cathy Applefeld Olson
Dec. 21: Foundation for the National Archives
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